Friday, December 05, 2008

From the bloke who brought us our favourite football T shirt shop

Day 5: Paul Weller Month

Of course, if you're going to try and do 31 days of Weller, you're compelled to mix the radical politics in with the pop.

To try and do otherwise suggests that you are in fact David Cameron doing a bit of moonlighting and you're continuing to suffer from the self-delusion that a toff tory wanker can like both The Jam and The Smiths. (And, no, you're not allowed to have Eton Rifles on your iPod either, you arse. Stick to your own kind: Vince Hill or that bum-faced bloke from Busted), or it means that the month of Weller is confined solely to his solo career.

The following article by Mark Perryman about Weller, The Style Council and politics appeared in the October 1985 issue of Marxism Today and, arguably, says as much about where the Euro-Communist Marxism Today was at at that particular time as it does about where Weller was coming from and where he was going both politically and musically. I'm referring specifically to Perryman's disdain for Walls Come Tumbling Down', arguably one of The Style Council's finest moments but apparently a bit too class orientated and in your face for the magazine that was looking for the grand progressive coalition to defeat Thatcher at the ballot box.

It's no way a hostile review of Weller and his work, but I do think it perhaps misses some of his playful humour that underpinned both The Jam's later work and what The Style Council were doing at the time the article was published. (Though I think it's fair to say that most of us missed a lot of Weller's playfulness and self-parody at the time.)

Weller's break from political songwriting in his solo work has been well-documented in the usual places, but I think it's also interesting that he also chose to break from humour in his work at the same time. Recent interviews that I've read suggests that he felt he got burnt by Labour Party types involved in Red Wedge, and got gradually more exasperated by the increasing emphasis on his political campaigning side in both print and tv interviews, but I'm guessing that it's when his confidence also took a knock at the tail end of his Style Council career - the unreleased House album, the diminishing chart returns and finally getting dropped by Polydor - which explains why humour or biting satire no longer seems to feature in his persona or lyrics. Seriousness seemed to take a hold. Shame to thik we'll never see him wearing an apron on stage ever again.

Mark Perryman? He's still about. I understand that he is involved in the Respect Renewal grouping but he's probably best known for the Philosophy Football T shirts venture, as mentioned on the blog a few weeks back. It's a small world but I wouldn't want to install wi-fi on it.

Paul Weller: Style Counsellor

by Mark Perryman

Paul Weller has been a rising star ever since, through sheer endurance, he emerged as the 'head-boy' of punk's Class of 76. Whilst the Sex Pistols split, the Clash effectively retired, and the Damned collapsed into harmless self-parody, the besuited Weller led his threesome, the Jam, on to better times.

In many ways, the Jam were the finest British band since the Beatles; they were so complete - able to evoke fond memories of the early Who and, at the same time, thrash out the youth-anthems with punk's finest. They were a suburban going- concern, tightly-knit and full of collective energy. Their unform of Italian suits, button-down shirts and narrow ties stood them out from the bondaged crowds of the late 70s but their furious leaps and manic delivery of their early anthem, In the City drove them into the hearts of the thousands who preferred their punk rebellion shorn of its art-school pretensions.

As the years sped by, punk fell apart as a coherent movement along with its political masterpiece- 'Rock against Racism'. Weller, always the most apolitical of punk's spokespersons, notorious for his infamous 'I'd vote Tory' quote, marked punk's downfall with the ironically titled album, All Mod Cons. On it he surpassed the staccato sloganising of his more forthright peers and produced a subtle line in politics. He weaved his positions around finely-crafted storylines, reaching his peak on Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, which spoke of inner city deprivation, the isolation and fear of suburban youth and the aura of white male violence which is the breeding-ground of the fascist Right.

Going Underground went straight into the singles chart at No 1; the Jam had finally arrived but Weller was already showing his dissatisfaction with his new-found status. As yet another mod revival stalked the nation, he appeared on Top of the Pops in a kitchen apron. What mod would be fool enough to latch on to this post-parka fashion craze?

The albums still appeared at a fairly furious rate, Setting Sons being a concept album, loosely based around an English Civil War. Sound Affects featured quotes from Shelley, while the final studio album, The Gift marked a decisive shift towards a brassy soul sound. Weller was clearly unhappy with the contradiction of being a soul afficionado trapped in a strictly traditional rock threepiece, more fundamentally his lyrical themes were oddly counterposed - on the one hand, a fierce national pride and on the other, a longing for world unity, epitomised by the track Trans-global Unity Express.

He found his way out by breaking up The Jam, biding his time, then reappearing with the Style Council. The new band were rapidly established beginning with a spate of hit singles, and then with a solid roster of live work.

The Style Council put a heavy emphasis on visual appearance and packaging. The fashions have varied from city slickers to Euro-chic. But the main feature of the group is the very close relationship between Weller and his new compatriot, Mick Talbot. Unlike the days of the Jam when Weller was always streaks ahead of his sidekicks, Talbot is very much Weller's equal and in some of the videos, notably Solid Bond, appears to play Arthur Daley to Weller's Terry McCann. Mick Talbot is very much the big-city wide-boy, right down to chewing matches and sticking a betting ticket in the brim of his hat.

On the a Paris EP, the highlight of pop's Summer of 83, the Council made it clear they were ready for some new horizons. A funk bass-line accompanied a superb love- song, whilst D C Lee's live vocals on Paris Match suggested what was to become a major new direction, jazz.

The EP marked an important new stage in Weller's career; he was happy with the freedom to experiment; the spirit was still angry but more controlled and directed - he was embracing a more optimistic mood which reflected his new-found confidence in dealing with a wider range of lyrical concerns. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the heavily continental turn in presentation, Paul Weller was still quite obviously the fresh-faced Englishman abroad, dogged by his fierce national pride.

The band's debut album, Cafe Bleu, released in only 1984, highlighted the continental mood, heavy in its emphasis on instrumental and almost fickle in its rapid turnover of musical styles. The album sold well but served to confuse the critics. Weller was clearly trying to transcend the limitations of a rock group based solely around him. He brought in a wide range of guest musicians, and on stage, the Style Council was more like an orchestra than anything Weller had been associated with before. The result was, frankly, clumsy, but the motivation was painfully sincere - a real attempt at a collective piece of work. The problem is, and remains, that whatever Weller involves himself in, he is so obviously the driving force. By no means a musical giant, and hardly a sex-symbol, he remains a potent performer with the self- confessed ability 'to be direct without necessarily being obvious'.

The combination doesn't always add up. The recent hit Walls Come Tumbling Down, opened with a predictable diatribe topped off with the cliche-ridden 'You don't have to take this crap. . .' But on his album, Weller shows he has the proven ability to combine tales of homelessness, drug abuse, police violence, community decline and YTS into a worthwhile collection of songs with something new to say. In many ways, it is as the 'Collector', as he appears on the inner sleeve of the album, that Weller is best summed up - a collector of tales of woe backed up with an up-beat of disparate pedigree.

The collective feel of the band itself only goes so far; Talbot is clearly treated as an equal but the drummer is faintly patronised as a young upstart, a reminder of Weller's past. As for Weller's co-vocalist, D C Lee, she hardly earns a mention in the very male world of the latter-day modernist. Paul Weller is often seen as a miserable soul; a more succinct observation would be of a very visible presence, devoid of sexual intrigue. Weller and Talbot are the boys about town; women are treated as accessories and props, certainly not to be incorporated into the Style Council project. This may be somewhat harsh but a quick comparison with the massive leap forward made by the man who toppled Weller from the top of the music press's popularity polls, Morrissey of the Smiths, is enough to convince. Weller has stepped ahead of his puritanical imitators, such as the Redskins - full of macho- white soul-thrash - but his songs still mainly present women as objects, not as people, and his stage show is strictly for the boys.

Of late, Paul Weller's politics have been taking a more substantive form. President of the International Youth Year, a regular at benefits for the miners, he has also donated thousands of pounds to Youth CND. His criticism of pop's temporary infatuation with the wonders of charity merited a second look because, unlike the sneering commentators of pop's very own left-field, he actually took the time (and the stick) to play on Band Aid, notwithstanding his suspicions. A more tentative relationship has sprung up with the Labour Party particularly through the Militant-inspired 'Youth Trade Union Rights campaign'. Neil Kinnock clearly has ambitions for the youth vote that far outstrip the conspiratorial world of the far left and his break with political pomposity has brought him a New Musical Express front cover and a headlining tour by Billy Bragg for the 'Jobs and Industry' campaign. Most of Weller's pop allies remain committed on a single-issue basis which is certainly worthy but full of unhappy complexities. Witness the ideological somersaults performed when Wham! turned out for the miners. Club Tropicana a la Scargill (of Yorkshire Miner Pin-up Fame) anyone?

Weller, on his recent tour, was boldly proclaiming: 'The Labour Party is the only alternative to the Tories', before diving headlong into a criticism of rhetoric, careerism, corruption and fence-sitting. What Weller is clearly after is an exciting and innovative brand of youth politics, developed by youth autonomously. This is what sussed-out pop has always been infatuated with. The Labour Party, however, remains wedded to a narrow leadership-power role based on educating its youthful supporters, not learning from them. Weller fits uneasily into such a fractured relationship; a vitriolic campaigner, full of suspicion and commitment.

Style, especially in the politically- charged lyrical world of Paul Weller, is far more than a cosmetic surface. He understands its complexities and is equally at home in Smash Hits or Sanity. His style emerges from a firm,, but due to his pop-world exclusion, fairly simplistic political base. Musically, he is still after a seal of distinction, neatly echoed by the band's own logo 'Keeps on Burning'. Paul Weller is not forming any new ground in the sense of Jerry Dammers or New Order; he's not representing a new development in a worthwhile tradition such as Working Week's efforts with jazz. But in the words of his alter-ego, 'The Cappucino Kid', he does represent 'a growing up with a 70s feeling for life, love and ambition'. For those politically constructed beyond the heady hippy days of 1968, Paul Weller remains someone to be reckoned with.


Alister said...

As an LPYS activist of the time there is probably something to be written about how Militant via the LPYS worked alongside Red Wedge and the relationship with Weller such as it was. I know the YTURC address was published on the sleeve of My Favourite Shop. On the other hand I remember my Militant full-timer being suspicious of Red Wedge and slagging me off for buying a t-shirt at the Edinburgh gig. He said I should have given the money to the fighting fund! I now realise of course that it was because Militant didn't control it. In their defence they did try to politicise it as much as possible away from the bland 'vote labour' 'move on up' sloganeering.

Darren said...

I did have to raise a wry smile when I read, "particularly through the Militant-inspired 'Youth Trade Union Rights campaign' . . ." in Mark Perryman's piece.

'Inspired' is such a neutral term. ;-)

I missed Red Wedge by a year/year and a half, so I would definitely be interested in reading more about it. Just a shame there seems so little about it on the net. (And I've looked.)

Funny anecdote about the Millie full timer in Edinburgh. It reminded me that I went to a Socialist Alternative (the US section of the CWI) meeting in Brooklyn at the end of October and at the end of the talk they called on a member in the audience to do the 'we need your money' speech. I'm sure you heard it a thousand times. Probably gave a few yourself.

Maybe my mind is playing tricks on me, but it seemed to be word for word for every 'we need your money' speech I'd heard from Millie members back in Britain.

There must be a yellowed memo doing the rounds of the International.